Friday, May 13, 2011


I suppose it’s easier to review Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter from the other side of the continent, miles away from her restaurant Prune, for which she just won Best Chef, New York City, at this year’s James Beard Awards. There’s no inclination to review both at once, to mistake them as being parts of the same, because, from all other accounts, the book is much more.  That’s mostly because the memoir is touted to be one of the best from chefs-turned/stayed-writers, a claim I’ll accept on face value considering I can’t remember there being an overly large amount of chef memoirs around.

It all starts off with Hamilton’s childhood, as her former ballet dancer mother and theatre set designer father prepare the feast of all feasts, a scene that seems idyllic, fantastic, and almost other-worldly for the rest of us who have suffered through countless orange-juice-and-7-Up-punch potlucks thrown by family friends we no longer care to remember.

From there, things must unravel – it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. Her parents’ marriage disintegrate and with it their parenting skills, and Hamilton spends much of her adolescence fostering her delinquency, picking up a coke habit, and stealing the odd car or few while her dad hides from creditors. It’s during these years that she first starts working in restaurants, a reminder that many in the industry are generally there for the paycheck first, and the love of the craft numerous priorities thereafter.

The pattern runs same through Hamilton’s move to NYC, where she picks up a waitress job and details a clever tip-stealing scheme for those interested readers who happen to work in busy bars (the resulting grand larceny charge serves as Hamilton’s disclaimer). She works her underage employment as a great get-out-of-jail card and starts her academic career in English lit, something she picks up and drops numerous times, a fruitless endeavor but for the fact that Hamilton now also has a solid writing portfolio (and this memoir) under her belt.
(Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg, for Elle)

The only constant thread through this is her constant employment in the food and hospitality industry. Hamilton picks up jobs for large catering companies, summer camp programs and the like, and it’s through these experiences that we see her oscillate between purpose and malaise. The purpose arises through isolated moments of connection: Misty, a co-worker at a catering company who shows Hamilton glimpses of the art of cooking in contrast to the mindless mass production that comprises their catering work; a child at the summer camp that shows a mature appreciation of the food Hamilton offers and who HAPPENS TO BE MARK BITTMAN’S DAUGHTER. The malaise, of course, arises out of mindless repetition and soul-crushing labour.

This all eventually culminates in the opening of Prune, but not before we take a detour through Hamilton’s pan-Asia/Europe trek, where tales of scraping by in the kind of travel “prior to ATM, debit cards, cash advance credit cards, cell phones, Facebook and international SIM card” are adeptly intertwined with glimpses of Hamilton setting up the restaurant.

It’s here that Hamilton weaves her narrative most intricately, balancing out the desperation of her travels with the technicality of renovations, cleaning and paperwork, re-focusing on the little salvations that she finds in the hospitality and meals of the hosts that she meets in France, Greece and elsewhere, and setting forth the mission statement for her new restaurant:

“And I wanted to bring all of it, every last detail of it – the old goat herder smoking filterless cigarettes coming down the mountain, crushing oregano and wild mint underfoot; Iannis cooking me two fried eggs without even asking me if I cared for something to eat; that sweet, creamy milk that the milk wallah in Delhi frothed by pouring in a long sweeping arc between two pots held as far apart as the full span of his arms from his cart decorated with a thousand fresh marigolds – into this tiny thirty-seat restaurant.”

It’s also here where all of Hamilton’s culinary threads come together. As much as she returns to the catering world out of economic necessity, she also does it for order, and her story blossoms fully when she slowly evolves from cook to host. Throughout, Hamilton gets the most clarity when the food emerges from being mere work product to something that finally engages her, and that journey’s interesting enough without even diving into the issues of parental neglect and the compensation finally found in opening a place specifically purposed for connection and belonging.

And that’s when you notice there’s still the “Butter” section of the book to get through.

Hamilton, who for the first two parts of the book casually mentions the odd woman she dates, suddenly becomes enamoured (or curiously fascinated, to be accurate) with a male Italian patron, ends up marrying him, having two children, all without ever living with each other. The marriage is a lark, the relationship crumbles as soon as the papers are signed, and Hamilton stays with it both out of stubbornness and for the annual sojourns to Italy to meet her in-laws.

Once there, she forms a heavy admiration for her mother-in-law, and, as with all other relationships that are worthy of Hamilton’s mention, much of it is described through the context of food. As her mother-in-law gets older and weaker, Hamilton picks up more of the cooking and caregiving, and the strength of her marriage grows inversely. By the end, that familial connection seems lost, and the marriage all but doomed (in recent interviews, Hamilton has mentioned that she will be getting a divorce).

That’s all without getting into any detail about the impromptu switch in the gender of her partners, save for a brief bit about the sad jilted lover right before the marriage, a gap that seems intrusive to wonder about but necessary for the story to seem complete. It’s also without much resolution within her own family, save for a quick visit with her estranged mother, who, irrespective of the crazy divorce and the immediate reprecussions, seems wholly tolerable and ordinary, despite Hamilton’s constant insistence otherwise (it could have perhaps helped if she had dwelled into the relationship a bit more before repeatedly reminding us of the dread she brings to it).

These odd resentments and bitterness pollute the last portion of the book. It extends to her descriptions of the innerworkings at the restaurant, where tasks become menial, work becomes laborious, and all the “what it’s really like” tales of running a restaurant just sound like those of any other small business owner. It’s easy to give Hamilton leeway leading up to it, out of curiosity and the more-than-occasional morsel of vividly descriptive tales of food. But by the end of the book, the endless complaining becomes frustrating, and the angst she gets across diminish whatever cachet or admiration she’s garnered leading up to it.

Regardless, Hamilton’s getting the lion’s share of hype when it came to memoirs these past few months, and for good reason. As mildly unlikable as she is by the end of Blood, Bones and Butter, there’s some serious writing going on, and her accomplishments are admirable. But here, on the other side of the continent, I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t like Hamilton more if I had her food to go along with it. That separation is unfortunate, because the book, in and of itself, leaves a bitter, unsatisfying taste, and something tells me Hamilton can cook up a whole lot more.

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